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Hidden agenda

Cal State Northridge's Holloway has twice been Big West sixth woman of the year, but revealing everything about her game has been an evolving process for the 6-foot-4 senior

December 23, 2007|Dan Arritt | Times Staff Writer

It was four years ago, but Katie Holloway can't forget.

The college coach, on a recruitment trip to Lake Stevens High in Washington state, proclaimed the highly ranked senior as the missing piece to her women's basketball program. She invited Holloway for an official visit -- a scholarship as part of the deal.

Holloway remembers shifting in her chair at that moment, knowing she was about to reveal what she had staunchly kept concealed for so long.

She wears a prosthetic lower right leg.

Born without a fibula, a defect that wasn't discovered until she was 10 months old, Holloway underwent an amputation before she was 2.

But don't feel out of the loop, she told the coach, because most people didn't know.

The rest seems like slow motion: The recruiter's eyes growing wider with each sentence, glancing at her watch, then shaking hands and walking away. For good.

"They stopped recruiting me," she said. "I felt that was because of my leg."

Not everyone stopped.

The 6-foot-4 Holloway is now the starting center for Cal State Northridge, which four years ago was struggling to retool after winning only five games during the previous two seasons. Northridge coaches, though surprised to learn of Holloway's disability, considered her worth the risk.

"We needed a banger," remembers Carla Houser, an assistant coach for the Matadors. "A back-to-the-basket post player."

Holloway, a senior, averages 10.3 points and a team-high 7.0 rebounds for the Matadors. She was named to the Big West Conference all-freshman team, and the last two years was selected the conference's sixth woman of the year.

Her success on the court and overall maturity have enabled her to become more secure with her situation. She took her biggest strides in the last two years, joining a Paralympics women's sitting volleyball team that is scheduled to compete in Beijing in September.

"If people want to know, I'll just tell them now," she said of her disability. "I'm grown up more, so I don't really care."

That wasn't the case while growing up in Lake Stevens, a small town in the shadows of the Cascades, about 40 miles north of Seattle. Holloway started playing sports at about 4, following in the footsteps of her sister, Chelsey, who is three years older. Their parents, Jeff and Jane, did their best to camouflage Katie's prosthesis and treat the two the same as possible.

"We didn't make any allowances," Jeff Holloway said. "Other than get a new leg once a year."

When she reached middle school, Holloway took on the task of concealing her disability. Her efforts became increasingly difficult once she began playing high-level athletics in the community, however.

"It was a juggle whether to tell the coaches," Holloway said.

She began focusing solely on basketball after her sophomore year, about the same time she received her first recruiting letters. After her team won a district title as a junior, the recruiting buzz ratcheted up. Holloway also tried to market herself to college programs, though she remained reluctant to disclose her entire medical history.

"I wanted them to recruit me and see how I played," Holloway said. "It all starts with them. I put myself out there and then they come to you."

Northridge Coach Staci Schulz, then an assistant with the Matadors, remembers scouting a rangy post player with soft hands and polished inside moves, skills that are increasingly difficult to find in a high school player. Schulz took note of Holloway's awkward gait, but figured she was just experiencing a growth spurt, or was playing through a minor injury.

"There's a lot of young people out there who don't have perfect body movement," Schulz said. "We just figured she had a bum knee or something."

Desperate for size and not necessarily concerned about Holloway's speed, Schulz scheduled a home visit. About a week beforehand, the coaching staff learned of her disability. When the Holloway family divulged the news, the Northridge coaches just nodded their heads.

"We didn't second-guess anything before, why do it now?" Schulz remembers thinking.

Holloway committed to Northridge, but more important, the coaches seemed committed to her. All she asked was that she be treated like her teammates, even if it meant running a training mile in less than 7 1/2 minutes, just like the other post players.

"She wanted to be treated like a basketball player," remembers Houser, now the Matadors' associate head coach. "I said, 'OK, but if you're not going to do media, and you're not going to put that story out there to inspire other people, I'm going to treat you like everybody else.' "

When Holloway arrived at Northridge in the fall of 2004, she struggled with her conditioning, Schulz said. They also began to discover some physical limitations, such as Holloway's ability to change directions at the same pace as other players and push off both feet with equal strength and balance.

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